Review by Fiona Duncan, published 31st December 2006.
I love staying in hotels that are also historic buildings, and Middlethorpe Hall, on the edge of York, certainly has the right credentials: it's a William and Mary gem, with mellow red-brick façade, which was once the home of diarist and traveller Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. "'Tis a very pretty place," remarked the pithy Lady Mary.
It's one of three Grade I-listed properties owned and restored by Historic House Hotels (the others are Hartwell House near Aylesbury and Bodysgallen Hall, Llandudno). The house is beautiful and has been furnished in keeping with its period: there are lovely formal gardens, a lake, a wide lawn with a splendid cedar tree, a spa and an indoor pool cleverly concealed behind a pair of cottages. And there's the curiosity of what must be the smallest lift in the world (like standing in a wardrobe). And then there's the road.
Lady Mary didn't have to contend with the A64 York ring road, but if she did she would have used some of her sharper words. We know about road noise, but this was intrusive in a way that just doesn't fit well with an expensive hotel, especially one that claims to hark back to gentler times. It stopped me getting to sleep, woke me at 6am and blighted my walk round the gardens, exquisite though they were. To be fair, it didn't in the least affect my companion, my catatonic second son who, with a few days to spare from university, was acting as my driver (paid, of course… he doesn't get out of bed unless he's paid).
It's a smart place, is Middlethorpe Hall. So smart that I arrived there somewhat poorer than I had set out, since an expedition to a passing shopping centre was required to transform my driver into something suitably dressed for the dining room (they don't stipulate "jacket and tie" but it's plainly what they'd prefer). Still, a shopping spree always raises the spirits, and descending from my pretty, traditional bedroom in the main house (there are 10 here, the rest, light and pleasant, around a courtyard) we were ushered to the drawing room in buoyant mood.
It was like joining the undead. We perched on a sofa by the insipid gas log fire and, in keeping with the other guests, dropped our voices to a low murmur. The room felt staid, unwelcoming and impersonal, its formal furniture arranged in static groups, the portraits which lined the walls eyeing us severely. "The chef is ready for you now," we were told, and then led away to the dining room.
Things improved here. With its fine original panelling, the room had warmth and everyone was more relaxed. After an excellent pea soup I had high hopes for the food, but it was not to be: the menu has, I suspect, remained the same for some time, while the chefs who cook it come and go.
There's no doubt that Historic House Hotels did Middlethorpe Hall a great service when they rescued the neglected building - previously a nightclub - in the 1980s. The hotel has much to recommend it, but the traffic noise and the ambience are not two of its more positive attributes. As we left, I was reminded of Lady Mary's famous last words: "It has been interesting".
Bishopthorpe Road, York (01904 641241; www.middlethorpe.com). Doubles from £180 to £395, including breakfast; dinner from £39).